COVID-19 relief might be the topic, but pandemic protocols clouded the Capitol on session’s first day

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While COVID-19 relief for Coloradans struggling with food, rent, utilities and other needs drew lawmakers back to the state Capitol on Monday, the pandemic and whether GOP lawmakers and others are taking it seriously dominated the first day. 

It began as soon as lawmakers took their seats. While Senate and House Democratic leadership insisted on everyone wearing masks — and signs abounded on committee room doors stating that masks were required — many Republicans continued to interact with each other without face coverings.

Whether it was the House or Senate floor, few Republicans wore masks on the session’s first day. Hand sanitizer also appeared to be in short supply around the building Monday.

Rep. Larry Liston, a Colorado Springs Republican, took the first heat when he put a mask on his bald scalp instead of covering his face while he was talking with other House Republicans. A photo of Liston’s “joke” caught big attention and criticism followed, both within the Capitol and on social media. 

“You know what’s not funny? Losing your dad to #covid,” posted Anna Hanel, a former reporter for Colorado Public Radio. Her stepfather also died from the virus last week. 

With one in 41 Coloradans likely contagious from the virus, even if asymptomatic, the chances that someone would walk into the Capitol on Monday with COVID-19 in their system was not only likely, but as it turns out, inevitable.

Just after 4 p.m., Speaker of the House KC Becker sent out a news release announcing a House GOP legislative aide was not only contagious for COVID-19, but knew it. 

“This afternoon we learned that a House Minority staffer tested positive for COVID-19 last week and was on the House Floor this morning. The staffer has been sent home and is not permitted to return through the special session and until she tests negative,” Becker wrote. “This was a reckless breach of the House’s safety protocols, and it will not be tolerated. The minority’s dangerous disregard for simple and effective protections and this staffer’s presence on the floor has placed the health of every lawmaker and member of staff at risk as we meet to pass critical legislation to help Coloradans get through this crisis. Republicans in the House must put the people of Colorado first and follow the House’s common-sense safety protocols.”  

However, incoming House Minority Leader Hugh McKean of Loveland said shortly after that the claim the staffer tested positive on Nov. 24 was in error.

McKean said the positive test was on Nov. 17. The aide “sought the advice of their physician and was given permission to return to work in person on the 24th of this month,” he said. “The statement that this individual tested positive last week is in error, after consulting with the Aide and finding that the test was performed on November 17th and cleared to return to work in person on the 24th, there should be minimal concern about their condition.”

Can lawmakers be forced to wear masks? The presiding officer can enforce mask-wearing as part of the rules, but so far, neither the Speaker of the House nor Senate President have taken that step.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder said that while aides and staff are required to wear masks, enforcing it with senators or other lawmakers is another issue. “Would you have the police arrest” a lawmaker for not wearing a mask, he asked.

COVID-19 protocols for the special session require lawmakers and staff to go through rapid testing prior to entering the Capitol, but that testing is taking place in the Legislative Services Building and the State Services Building, which would allow people to just walk into the Capitol and bypass the testing. 

Two lawmakers have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic started in the spring: Sen. Jim Smallwood, a Parker Republican who tested positive in March, and Rep. Meg Froelich, a Greenwood Village Democrat who is in quarantine this week. Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, an Aurora Democrat, tested positive for a different strain of the coronavirus last spring.